“Treat your mind the way you would a young child who doesn’t know any better. Be gentle but firm. Meditation means bringing your mind back when you notice it has wandered; it’s not about keeping your mind from wandering in the first place.” – Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life
I’ve been reading the book quoted above recently as part of a new long distance book club I created and I came upon some fantastic realizations today. I could hardly stop reading. In one chapter, he talks about how he went on a silent meditation retreat only to find himself jolting awake in the middle of the night each night. This so related to my experience over this last year of waking up at 4-5AM each morning. I love the way he frames these dreams in relation to the overall idea of the book.
“They (dreams) are a means of holding, and sometimes processing or often resolving, traumatic experiences… This, idea of broken dreams expressing broken aspects of our beings, seems very apropros. It is another way of talking about the trauma of everyday life, about the bits and pieces of catastrophe we disassociate from but still carry with us. These traumatic experiences are left hanging just outside awareness. They peek out from dreams or nag at us in the privacy of our aloneness, a lurking sense of sorrow or disquiet that underlies our attempts to be “normal”, but it is rare that we feel secure enough to let them fully speak. ” – Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life
For nearly the last year, I have been waking up randomly between 4-5AM. This past week, I started an “anxiety” track on headspace (a meditation app) and have managed to meditate daily. Along with that, I have been doing EMDR therapy to help with reprocessing. A couple of days ago, I suddenly realized I hadn’t woken up at an unusual hour in a couple of days. The sense of relief at realizing that maybe – just maybe – I’m actually processing what I need to washed over me. Hard work pays off.
My favorite aspect of the book currently is how he weaves the life of Buddha in with his daily practice as a psychiatrist. The two worlds blend so naturally thanks to his writing style that you hardly notice you’re jumping around centuries (no easy feat).
Having dealt with a couple of different “major” traumas in my little life, I found the way he described what trauma does to a person to be incredibly accurate:
“Therapist who specialize in the treatment of trauma spell this out clearly. They speak of how trauma robs its victims of the “absolutisms” of daily life: the myths we live by that allow us to go to sleep at night trusting we will still be there in the morning… When a person says to a friend, “I’ll see you later”, or a person says to a child at bedtime,”I’ll see you in the morning,” these are statements, like delusions whose validity is not open to discussions. Such absolutisms are the basis for a kind of naive realism and optimism that allows one to function in the world, experienced as stable and predictable. It is in the essence of emotional trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one’s sense of being in the world. Traumatized people are left with an experience of “singularity” that creates a divide between their experience and the consensual reality of others. Part of what makes it traumatic is the lack of communication that is possible about it.” – Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life
I have many memories of wandering around this world so aware of how broken it is all the while being unable to speak of it. Small talk abounds all around you while you’re just stuck with your head in your pain. You can’t vocalize it. Everything else is “normal” around you which just makes the feelings you have all the more seemingly abnormal. Having experienced this, it’s been such a joy to have someone give a voice and, dare I say, a science to it all.
“Facing the traumas we are made of, and the new ones that continually shape us, makes more sense than trying to avoid them, if the mind is balanced enough to hold the truth. Trauma is unavoidable, despite our strong wishes to the contrary. Facing this truth, this disillusioning attack on our omnipotence, with an attitude of honesty and caring strips it of much of its threat. When we are constantly telling ourselves that things shouldn’t be this way, we reinforce the very dread we are trying to get away from. But feeling our way into the ruptures of our lives lets us become more real. We begin to appreciate the fragile web in which we are all enmeshed, and we may even reach out to offer a helping hand to those who are struggling more than we are.” – Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve told myself “this isn’t normal. This isn’t the way things should be.” At times, this might have been helpful in cases where I really was stuck in irrational thoughts. Usually though, it sets off a panic of anxiety around thoughts of how I’m still broken, how I’m still stuck, how I’m not meeting some imaginary timeframe of healing, etc.
Part of EMDR therapy is writing out various traumatic events and going to the earliest one you have to work through it first. The idea is that traumatic events and memories live on the same neural pathway so clearing one will help clear others. I won’t go too much into the details of everything just for the sake of my own personal privacy but I completely didn’t mention the main reason I first went to therapy. I had so disassociated myself from it that it didn’t even occur to me. It wasn’t until I was 3-4 rounds into the EMDR work that it dawned on me that I had completely bypassed the origin of all of this – that’s how good I have become at disassociating from it.
“Therapists today have a language for trauma’s impact on the mind. They recognize that the mind’s primary defense against agony is dissociation and that the primary motivation for dissociation is stability… This capacity for dissociation is a survival mechanism. It allows us to go forward with our lives but in a compromised condition. The shock of trauma sits outside awareness like a coiled spring. The emotions aroused – which by their very “unbearable” nature cannot be imagined – are left unexplored. The self that moves forward is restricted by its failures to integrate the traumatic impact, by its failure to process its unbearable feelings… While dissociation offers immediate protection from the traumas of life, its relaxation connects us to ourselves in a way that brings forth relief from the heart.” – Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life
I’ll close with a fantastic vignette from the book – the author held a meditation workshop in New York during which he asked everyone to put their phones on loud and to a ringtone of their choosing. The idea was to simulate every day life with all of its glorious interruptions as part of the experience of living. I’ll let him explain –
“I was trying to show how meditation can be therapeutic, how it teaches a nonjudgmental way of attending to thoughts and feelings, and how listening to sounds can be practice for listening to feelings. I liked the idea of the cell phones going off randomly in the midst of our group meditation as people got calls, voice messages, e-mails, and texts. I saw the resulting cacophony as a metaphor not only for the traumas of daily life but also for its emotional impact as well: unpredictable, chaotic, inconvenient, and emerging in its own way and on its own schedule. Many people have the idea that meditation means shutting down thought or shutting off emotions the way we are often asked to shut down our phones before a movie or a talk. I wanted to use the ubiquitous presence of sound as an object of meditation rather than seeing it as an unwanted disturbance. By inference I was suggesting that emotional life could be part of the meditative experience, not something reserved for one’s diary, one’s partner, or one’s therapy and not something to be ashamed of or to squelch in the hopes of a more “spiritual” experience.” – Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life
I LOVE THIS. I was meditating this past week when I accidentally left my phone unmuted. I quickly hushed it due to the same thought process of not wanting it to interfere. Ironically, this same sort of silencing so as not to disturb is what drives me nuts about golf 😉
As I work through this trauma, I feel myself deepening and connecting different parts of myself for what feels like the first time. I’m learning to treat my mind like a young child who doesn’t know any better and it’s working. There’s a lightheartedness now even when I’m in the depths of my trauma. I can hold and witness it all for what it is without letting it be all of who I am. The fact that I’m sleeping through the night (dear god I do sound like a young child) is a visible sign to me that my mind is slowly easing and relief is coming in the form of coherence rather than dissociation from my lived experience.